Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just book love miscellany in general.
This week, I am glad to share my Book Riot Read Harder Challenge Update. My previous update was sometime 30 April 2016, so it’s about time that I do this, really.
I am Jazz
Written by: Jessica Herthel & Jazz Jennings Illustrations by: Shelagh McNicholas
Published by: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014 ISBN: 0803741073 (ISBN13: 9780803741072) Bought a copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.
It was a lovely writer-friend who told me about this picturebook biography of Jazz Jennings, and I immediately ordered it based on his enthused recommendation. As I read the story of Jazz, I was amazed by her light and joyful spirit. There is also a quiet certitude about who she is, even at a very young age.
In a world that thrives on confused states of being, I am glad that there are the likes of Jazz who knew from childhood that she loves pink, mermaids, make up and soccer – among other things. When her parents brought her in for a consultation with a doctor, they finally were able to make sense of her articulations of being female despite that the fact that she had a boy’s body.
While Jazz shares that she still gets teased by other kids who do not understand her, this was not really the core of the story. I think what truly stood out for me was her remarkable self-awareness and the support and love that she felt from her parents.
There is also an Afterword that talks about the TKPRF or the TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation which was set up in 2007 to make the lives of children born with Gender Dysphoria a little bit easier with the knowledge that they are accepted and that they are not alone in their journey of becoming.
(16/24) Read a book by or about a person that identifies as transgender.
Written by: Stephen King
Published by: Hodder, 2014 ISBN: 1444788647 (ISBN13: 9781444788648). Literary Awards: Edgar Award for Best Novel (2015), Goodreads Choice Award for Mystery & Thriller (2014). Review copy provided by Pansing Books.
It has been quite awhile since I have read a Stephen King novel – probably as far back as during my graduate school days. I’ve been meaning to get myself reacquainted with his latest novels, and I am glad to jump back into it with Mr. Mercedes which apparently is part of the Bill Hodges Trilogy. As I read through the novel, I realized that it is not technically a horror novel with supernatural elements like evil clowns (Think It), or demented dogs, (Cujo, anyone?) or even dead pets come to life (ehem, Pet Sematary). Nor is it anywhere near The Shining type of horror with ghosts ala Hotel California haunting the protagonist (yes, I read practically all of his earlier novels – The Stand remains an absolute favourite).
This one is more contemporary, with references to 9/11, the state of unemployment and recession in the US, the general feelings of malaise mixed with off-hand humor delivered sideways, and unrealized potential and poorly-used talents topped off with drunken stupor, boredom, and unarticulated rage. If I were to be quite technical about it, this would fall more along the lines of mystery/suspense/thriller rather than out-and-out horror, but that does not lessen the macabre aspects, and well, the horrifying depths to which a dark and tortured soul can sink into.
I was also visualizing David Harbour who played the role of Sheriff Jim Hopper in Stranger Things to play the role of Retired Detective Bill Hodges, the flawed protagonist in this story. This reads like a movie or a TV series actually – it’s been so long since I’ve read anything quite as riveting, raw, and just plain entertaining. It makes sense that I enjoy TV series like Criminal Minds. I enjoyed the thrill of the chase, as Bill Hodges, bored up to his ears with his retirement (nothing occupying his days except bad TV shows and playing with his gun), finally found a new raison d’être for living, giving meaning to his days, with one of his unresolved cases coming back to haunt him. Dubbed Mr. Mercedes, this demented perk (how the perpetrator refers to himself instead of perp) drove a stolen Mercedes right into a group of people who have queued up since the night before for a job fair, killing quite a number of people, including a baby. Who would have thought that Mr Mercedes would have gotten away with it, really? Except that he did, and he couldn’t help but gloat and write to this retired detective whom he wished to goad into committing suicide. Except that it backfired. Bill Hodges found himself even more alive than before, even got himself a new girlfriend.
But back to the horror aspect of it. While I generally feel that Stephen King may have mellowed down over the years (or I simply have not gotten hold of his other latest horror novels), there is still the penchant for the unnameable, the articulation of taboos, and the irreverent spewing of vile and hate, as can be seen in this quote below from the perk/perp (I took a photo of the page and edited it using an iPhone app):
The story is not a whodunit type of thriller – it is clear from the get-go who Mr. Mercedes is – the question is who is baiting who, and whether Bill Hodges would be shrewd and canny enough to prevent something awfully big and tragic from occurring, and catching Mr. Mercedes too. Whether he manages to do this, I shall leave for you to discover. I am now waiting on the third book in the series before I dive right into Finders Keepers, the second book in the series.
(17/24) Read a horror book.
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller
Written by: Italo Calvino
Published by: This edition published in 1981. Originally published in Italy under the title Se Una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore by Giulio editore s.p.a. Torino, 1979 (ISBN: 0 7493 9923 6). Literary Awards: Ars Translationis (2010). Bought my own copy of the book.
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter
Written by: Mario Vargas Llosa
Published by: Published October 2nd 2007 by Picador (first published 1977) (ISBN: 0 7493 9923 6). Literary Awards: Ars Translationis (2010). Review copy provided by Pansing Books.
One of the tasks in the challenge includes reading a book from the decade when I was born – naturally, I ended up reading not just one but two novels – simply because I am an overachiever that way. For one, I’ve been meaning to read an Italo Calvino book, so I thought I better begin with this one as the premise seems very interesting – a book about books – how could I possibly not love it (especially since we did devote a reading theme on books-about-books a few years back), right? Right? Wrong.
I started reading this book while I was still in Munich and brought it with me in Madrid (see my Litsy photo above – I love how I can now use Litsy as part of my book documentation process). If you’ve seen the movie Inception – then that is probably the best way to describe this experimental novel that brings the reader from one book to the next as apparently the book you are reading is not the one you’ve read the day before – see the quote here:
This volume’s pages are uncut: a first obstacle opposing your impatience. Armed with a good paper knife, you prepare to penetrate its secrets. With a determined slash you cut your way between the title page and the beginning of the first chapter. And then…
Then from the very first page you realize that the novel you are holding has nothing to do with the one you were reading yesterday. (p. 33)
And so as the reader gets acclimatized to the feel of the novel, you are brought to another story that is apparently the real story, but then again, apparently not. I think at the heart of it is a passion for the written word that Calvino has shown a definite mastery over – as evidenced in the literary craftsmanship of this novel, as he plays with the reader’s thoughts all the while weaving a story within a story within a story that eventually annihilates itself. Did I like it? Hell, no. But I have to admire what he was trying to accomplish here especially since it was published as early as 1979 – a few steamy scenes here as well.
I thought I also better juxtapose it with Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, because this one was also written with a story-within-a-story format, but unlike Calvino’s novel which only ended up making me feel very impatient (it was out of sheer reader’s tenacity that I fought to finish reading it) – Aunt Julia was sheer delight. Set in Lima, Peru, the author introduces us to young Marito, a struggling writer in his teens who was studying to be a lawyer and working as a news department staff of a local radio station. He fell in love with an older woman, a 30-something divorceé, practically a “ruined” woman (according to traditional Peruvian family standards, that is) who found Marito’s teenybopper infatuation amusing until she herself became enamoured by the innocent and untoward and forbidden romance of it all. At certain points in the novel, I found myself wondering if Marito is a young Mario Vargas Llosa when he was just starting out as a writer. I did research this and apparently it is part-autobiographical as he wrote about his courtship with his first wife Julia – and part-fiction – knew it!
As you can see in the photos above (which I also posted on Litsy), I was reading this novel while eating the chocolates I brought back here in Singapore from Madrid – it was quite a good match, if I may say so myself. What amused me more, however, was not Marito’s story, but the eccentric, highly popular radio scriptwriter Pedro Camacho, who has elevated radio-novelas (not telenovelas during that period) into such an artform that everyone, including the top officials in the government, were listening avidly to what would happen next in one of his many radio shows. Hence, the book alternates from Marito’s story to Pedro Camacho’s radio-novelas and their labyrinthine plots with their usual tropes that are highly dramatic (well, hey, that is the intent obviously) and very effective.
However, it is clear from the get-go that Pedro Camacho’s eccentricity is symptomatic of a truly sick mind. And as his mind gradually unravels, so do the plot lines in his radio shows get tangled up, as one character shows up in another story, or a twist meant for another story gets mixed up in another – the result is perfectly orchestrated hilarity that doesn’t feel staged or trying too hard to be literary or smart like how Calvino made me feel in If on a Winter’s Night. I am glad that I started my Vargas Llosa love-affair with this novel, as I am avidly looking forward to reading a few more of his titles that are sitting idly on my shelves. This is definitely one book that you should experience for yourself.
(18/24) Read a book originally published in the decade you were born.
We Are All Made Of Molecules
A Novel by: Susin Nielsen
Published by: Wendy Lamb Books, 2015 ISBN: 0553496867 (ISBN13: 9780553496864)
Borrowed a copy from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.
Told in alternating voices (reminiscent of Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun and Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places), this middle grade novel introduces two unforgettable characters in the presence of the highly-gifted 13 year old Stewart who is socially awkward and parallels real-life problematic situations with the make-believe model UN scenarios they are given in his previous gifted school to solve world crisis. I feel that he is a sharp-witted, highly-sensitive, and emotionally balanced boy who would eventually come into himself as an adult, given his ability to recognize social cues and his capacity to learn from previous mistakes, unlike, say, young people who suffer from Asperger’s syndrome who are pretty much set on their ways and unyielding in their habits and views. Stewart’s mother just died from cancer and he and his father are gradually moving forward with their lives (see the rest of my review here).
(19/24) Read a middle grade novel.
Alif the Unseen
A Novel by: G. Willow Wilson
Published by: Corvus, 2012 ISBN: 0857895699 (ISBN13: 9780857895691). Literary Awards: Locus Award Nominee for Best First Novel (2013), World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (2013), Hammett Prize Nominee (2012), Booklist Editors’ Choice for Adult Fiction for Young Adults (2012), John W. Campbell Memorial Award Nominee (2013), Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire Nominee for Roman étranger (2014),Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee for Longlist (2013), The Center For Fiction First Novel Prize Nominee (2012)
Bought my own copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.
As you can see in my Litsy rating above, this was a ho-hum kind of novel for me. I understand its magical premise, and yes it is set in the Middle East, the exact location was never mentioned, which I thought was pretty clever of G. Willow Wilson. It was fascinating enough but I found it forgettable. Pace was sluggish in the earlier parts of the book, and the characters remained not too fleshed-out enough for me to truly care about any of them. Still an interesting read with glimmers of beauty though. Here is one quote which I took a photo of and edited using an iPhone app.
I suppose I am not the target market for this fantasy novel. While I do love computers and technology, the use of the Alf Yeom, a rare manuscript which tells the story of the Thousand and One Nights from the genie’s perspective – as a form of metaphor for a computer code that will effectively wipe out computer systems – kind of went over my head. I do appreciate the metaphor, the technical craftsmanship, the story within a story, and the pace which eventually picked up in the end – but way too late for me, I thought – and the discussions on censorship, the quick repartee, and the minute dissections of faith and religion. While I found it to be quite good in form, there was something missing in the substance, a kind of elusive truth that just managed to skirt around the edges playfully but not really touching on a core issue of pain, leaving me very much an outsider to a story that I just couldn’t immerse myself into. That being said, I paired the book here with home-cooked Sunday lunch – olive oil and garlic with scallops and clams courtesy of ze husband.
(20/24) Read a book that is set in the Middle East.
Pending Books to Read for the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge
(1) Read the first book in a series by a person of color.
While I did have a few books that I meant to read for this, I don’t really feel like reading them. So I am waiting for the perfect book that will eventually speak to me. Suggestions are most welcome.
(2) Listen to an audio book that has won an Audie award.
I am not a huge audiobook fan – I have my doubts as to whether I would get around to listening to this eventually, we shall see.
(3) Read a book that is by an author from Southeast Asia.
Again, I did include a possible book for this, but somehow I don’t feel like reading that too. So I am waiting for a book that I specifically requested from Pansing Books to get to me, and I’d most likely read that one.
(4) Read a book out loud to someone else.
This is slow-going for me and my daughter, especially with end-of-year tests. Most likely, we’d get to this during her school break in November and December.